Stunt acting is an extremely dangerous profession, with professionals putting their lives on the line to execute a fast paced car chase or free fall off the side of a building. However, production companies pull out all the stops to ensure safety for both the cast and crew. But, sometimes accidents happen and the aftermath can be catastrophic. Take for example, Olivia Jackson, a stunt actress who'd worked on films for Marvel and Star Wars. During her very first day on the set of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Jackson collided with an action vehicle equipped with a crane while riding a motorcycle. She survived the crash, however, was in a medically induced coma and experienced traumatic brain injury, internal bleeding and had her left arm amputated at the elbow. We sat down with Jackson to learn more about her career as a stunt actor, how she was impacted by the accident and why she chose to get tattooed.
What was your upbringing like and how did it lead you to pursuing a career as a stunt actor?
I was brought up in South Africa on a farm—running around without shoes on, climbing trees, playing in the mud and swimming in the pool. I guess that kind of upbringing gave me a good base for my career. I never minded putting in the hard work or getting my hands dirty. I’m a very hard worker in everything I do. That kind of upbringing also makes you very tough and resilient.
I never actually pursued a career as a stunt performer... it kind of found me. I started my working career at 18 after school, as a model. I used to spend half my year modelling in Europe and half my year in Cape Town, following the modelling seasons and the summer. I started Muaythai when I was about 20 and slowly fell in love. In 2006 I took a planned two years off everything to travel to Asia (predominantly India) to study Tibetan Buddhism, which I have been doing since I was about 19 years old. I mostly stayed in India in a Tibetan monastery studying Buddhism and learning meditation. After nine months, I took a quick trip to Thailand to see my sister, who was there on holiday. I decided to do a Muaythai training session, as I hadn’t done proper exercise in a year. Well, long story short, I ended up staying in Thailand for three more years fighting professional Muaythai, with a yearly visit to India to take part in Buddhist retreats and teachings.
While I was living and fighting out of Bangkok, I did a modelling shoot for extra money. Fighting wasn’t great money, but it was such a passion of mine. I met a guy who was on the casting team for a French film, The Burma Conspiracy. He found out what I did and asked me to cast for a female acting role that needed to learn how to do her own stunts. Well, I got the job and they taught me how to do stunts. I really loved the stunt part of the industry so I carried on with that, never looked back.
What was your career like as a stunt actor prior to your accident? What were some of your specialties and what projects were you involved in?
My career as a stunt performer was strong right from the start. My did a lot of screen fighting and was extremely into my motocross bikes. Some of the films I did were Mad Max: Fury Road, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron and many others.
Take us through the day of the accident and what caused it.
The day of the accident was actually the very first day of filming, in the first few hours. We were supposed to film a fight scene on top of a moving vehicle but that day was raining. It was decided they wanted to film a bike scene. There was a long road, about a KM in length, I was to start at one end and ride in a straight line and a camera vehicle with a crane arm attached to it was to start at the other end of the road driving towards me. I wasn’t allowed to wear a helmet, due to the scene. The action vehicle driving towards me had its crane arm extended to the side of the vehicle and was supposed to start with the camera and crane swooping along the ground. Then what was supposed to happen was as the action vehicle got a safe distance away from me, they were supposed to lift the crane arm up over the top of my head. Without informing me, they changed some vitally important things that directly influenced the timing of the stunt and that led to the action vehicle driving the crane arm into my head and upper body.
What went through your mind when you woke up from your coma and what were the injuries you got from the crash?
I had a number of life threatening injuries. I really don’t know how I survived. When I woke up from the coma, I just went into survival mode. I put all my focus into trying to get better, starting with learning to walk again.
This is a list of my injuries:
- Degloved left hand side of face
- Shattered zygoma
- Brain bleed
- Brain swelling
- Punctured ear canal from zygoma bone
- Severed brachial artery
- Internal bleeding
- Sternocleidomastoid muscle avulsion
- 5/5 preganglionic brachial plexus avulsion (paralysis)
- Collapsed lung
- Horners syndrome
- Broken neck (can't remember vertebra)
- Broken back (can't remember vertebra)
- Broken clavicle
- Shattered scapula
- Several broken ribs (on left)
- Broken humerus
- Broken radius (open fracture)
- Broken ulna (open fracture)
- Amputated left thumb
- Facial lacerations
- Traumatic Brain injury
How did you life change after the accident?
My life changed COMPLETELY after the accident. Before, I lived a very full life doing martial arts, riding motocross, performing stunts, partying and traveling. Due to all my injuries, I had to get used to a life mostly bound to my house, being in constant pain, having difficulty to do anything, no energy, not being able to work ever again, the loss of independence and the things I loved most in this world.
Take us through the tattoos you got after the accident and the meaning behind them.
The tattoos I’ve had after the accident are mostly Tibetan Buddhist inspirations for me:
On my fingers I have a heart, a sun and a wave. The heart on my ring finger is for my husband Dave, the sun and the wave are purely because I love the sun and the ocean.
On my hand, I have a lotus flower & a ‘Hri’ syllable. In Tibetan Buddhism the Hri syllable is the seed syllable of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion.
Up my arm are some words written in Tibetan:
“Impermanence,” which is a main theme in Mahayana Buddhism. Everything in life is impermanent, changing & evolving.
“Phema Lhamo,” my Buddhist name which means Lotus Goddess.
"On Mani Pad Mae Hum," the mantra of compassion.
“Courage,” to signify the amount of courage I’ve had to find in order to get me through these extremely challenging times.
“To Find Calm,” which is a very important state of mind for me that I aim to be in.
There is a Tibetan letter that represents the true nature of mind. It’s a strong concept in Tibetan Buddhism that inspires me more than anything. It’s what we are at our deepest level of consciousness. I have the eternal knot which symbolises that everything in life is interconnected, that’s how karma works.
Behind my elbow I have a few things that are special to my life:
“Muaythai,” written in Thai.
My motocross racing number “49” from my bike’s front number board.
Two cats paw prints for my two kitties, who I love so dearly.
What’s next for you and what would you like people to know about your story?
Believe it or not, I’m still in recovery so it's hard for me to say what’s up next for myself. The sad thing is, I don’t think I will ever come out of recovery. My body is injured in so many ways that its always changing, twisting and getting new problems to overcome. Its constant work, everyday, to try to stop my body from getting so uncomfortable that it won’t move at all. Instead of trying to think of what’s ahead for myself, I focus on the present and try to make that as good as I can. When something inspires me at the right time, maybe I will find a new route of focus for myself but until then I'm just trying to keep my head above water and enjoy the paddle.